A Woman and the Afternoon Sun
By Shahbano Alvi
As a form of storytelling, a popular trend among Pakistani writers is shorter tales to get their points across. Maybe it’s the creative restraint demanded by the word length, which encourages the author to be precise in what they want to say, or maybe it’s just that a short story compilation allows for a greater variety of plots and characters to be covered.
Whatever the reason may be, a multitude of authors, from Daniyal Mueenuddin to Mira Sethi, have explored this form of engagement with an audience, dabbling in the richness and depth provided by short story compilations. The latest entrant in the genre is Shahbano Alvi’s collection A Woman and the Afternoon Sun.
Composed of 23 supremely short tales, within a 150-page count, Alvi keeps each story brief and to the point, with a writing style that relies heavily on a person’s ability to read between the lines. Interestingly enough, the sparse writing style and utter dependence on a reader’s intuition serve to create a greater depth to each narrative’s characters, allowing us to interpret each story in our own ways.
Because of the limited time spent introducing us to protagonists and settings, we usually jump right into the plot and things wrap up as quickly as they had started. While it would have been possible in such a situation for the endings to feel abrupt and rushed, most of the stories allow for a natural and well-thought-out ending. Things are either tied up neatly in a pretty little package, with all plot points rounded off, or they are left open-ended enough so as to be, instead of merely frustrating, an exercise in musing on the future possibilities of each character.
With a sparse and to-the-point writing style, a collection of short stories relies heavily on the reader’s ability to read between the lines
Thematically, the collection takes on some pretty heavy topics, not shying away from discussing subjects which might be taboo, or considered too vulgar or insensitive to treat in literature. Alvi’s stories cover heartbreak in all its varied forms, caused by factors such as death, sexual abuse, physical suffering or emotional turmoil.
One could say that survival is the theme that reigns supreme above all within this collection, with characters forced to confront monsters made by others, or by themselves, again and again, and scrambling to figure out exactly how to deal.
Even though this means that a general air of doom is threaded throughout the stories, one gets the feeling that the author is not as interested in leading her readers to a happy ending, but rather to one that makes sense, which feels realistic. Greater attention is paid to the representation of life as it is, instead of how it should be, and no tale truly offers escapism. Rather, all the stories combine to portray the truth of our messy, conflicted lives, bringing them to the reader’s attention in all their chaotic glory.
These themes help to make emotions the main focus of each story, with grief and longing being a significant presence in most. From tales of wives whose husbands have left them, to a bird’s perspective of a dying human who regularly provided it with food, we shift between ages, genders and even species, but there is a constant presence of a low-lying anguish tied almost inexorably with hope.
In each tale, while most emotions remained unnamed, they are always visible behind the screen of carefully crafted sentences and, to the astute reader, are clearly the most important part of the narrative. The emotional weight of each story is very present, no matter if the relationships being portrayed are those between strangers, or between the most familiar of people such as siblings, spouses, parents, etc.
In some stories, the severity of the writing and the distance through which these emotions are being explored can come across as cold, even a little unfriendly, and for readers who prefer that the details of each character’s inner turmoil be more visible, this collection can feel unsatisfying. It takes a greater amount of patience and willingness to speculate to enjoy these tales as they are meant to be read and enjoyed.
The characters through whom Alvi has chosen to tell her stories present a varied lot, with no strict adherence to any one age group or gender. We see tales being told from the point of view of traumatised youngsters, heartbroken older women, even healthy young men who grieve the passing of an older colleague. All sorts of living things serve as protagonists, from humans to creatures such as birds, or even other sentient beings such as trees, which serve as narrators of their own personal story arcs.
Alvi’s characters are so very varied that it is a pleasure to read across the board. It takes great skill to create such a plethora of characters in so small a word count, and it’s hard to categorise them into one lump, since so many inner lives are explored in so wide-ranging a manner.
Although this can lead to some stories feeling a little odd or pointless, with the reader unable to connect with every single viewpoint being explored, on the whole the protagonists and antagonists of each tale provide a healthy dose of three-dimensional authenticity in the reading experience.
What’s fascinating to see is the great amount of focus on women as protagonists, who take centre-stage in several of the stories, and these feel stronger and more hard-hitting. Told from a more personalised point of view, these tales have greater weight in terms of storytelling, or in leading the reader to a certain resolution.
The author is unapologetic in letting her female characters express their emotions to the widest possible range, showing their frustration, heartbreak and anger in equal measure. These women are confused and upset, and allowed to be — which is seldom seen or explored in fiction with such an eye for detail. Allowing women to be flawed creatures, who sometimes exhibit agency and sometimes don’t, is a trick Alvi has managed to do well, and should ideally continue to explore further.
One must also focus on the layout of the book, which bears commenting upon from an editorial point of view. With the open spaces between paragraphs and wide margins, the layout of the text serves to accentuate the spare writing style in an incredibly complementary manner.
It was impossible not to notice the slight editing issues, with random underlines or words struck out — which shows that it could have benefited from a final round of copy edits before being sent into the hands of a reader — but overall, the book has a clean, sparse look that harmonises with the writing. It is easy to disregard the importance of the layout of a book and focus only on the content, but here it has been done only as an advantage to the stories themselves.
On the whole, the collection is a quick, stimulating read, with the stories intertwining either with each other, or with the final, longer story that gives its name to the volume. A lot of things are left unsaid for the reader to decode, and connecting the dots serves as its own pleasure while going through each tale. One hopes that the author’s calibre will only continue to improve with time.
The reviewer is an editor of English course books.
She tweets @anumshaharyar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 12th, 2021